Integrating departments to break down silos, optimizing the customer experience and investing in high-touch service are all effective ways for news outlets to improve their customer relationships — but if there’s resistance to introducing these strategies from higher-ups, there won’t be buy-in from newsrooms. That’s why it’s essential that management show leadership by taking calculated risks and testing out creative approaches to customer service.

A risk-taking mindset is precisely what helped snatch the Chicago Sun-Times “from the jaws of extinction,” according to chief executive officer Nykia Wright, a former corporate strategy consultant who joined Chicago’s second biggest daily newspaper as chief operating officer in 2017 before being promoted to CEO a year later.

After arriving at the Sun-Times, Wright and her team needed to figure out how to cut costs and pivot the newspaper into becoming a digital-first publication. So she enlisted the help of vice-president of circulation Sheila Reidy, who worked in the news business for 34 years before retiring in 2013, only to return in 2016 after the Sun-Times asked her to consult on its circulation operation.

Offshore vs. onshore

At the time, the newspaper was outsourcing customer service to an offshore call center in South America. After analyzing the effectiveness of this call center with a Sun-Times customer service manager, Reidy said she quickly became aware that subscribers were having a difficult time communicating with these offshore customer service reps, and that the company wasn’t getting what it was paying for.

According to Reidy, there were two main issues for Sun-Times subscribers, who skew older: One, “they could not communicate their issue to people who would understand it” so the offshore reps “did not understand exactly what was wrong” and two, they were reluctant to give personal information like credit card numbers “to somebody with an accent.”

Wright acknowledged the possibility that some may find these insights uncomfortable, but emphasized the importance of serving customers the way they want to be served. “Regardless of what you think about that idea, I have to listen to my paying customers. So when you marry the need to cut significant costs and the need to change based upon our customer requirements, we felt that it was an opportunity to look at something different,” she said.

The way newspapers are sold and consumed in South America isn’t the same as it’s done in the United States, so customer service reps must understand and “work with the lens of how things are done in that market,” Wright added. For example, if reps don’t understand that back-and-forth negotiations are standard in America, “they don’t understand those cultural nuances” that’ll help them make a sale or provide adequate support.

Prioritize customer perspectives

Based on her decades of experience at newspapers, Reidy said the top priorities for any circulation department are to solve problems for customers, and to ensure customers feel comfortable in their relationship with service reps.

So, Reidy and Wright set out to replace the offshore call center, and interviewed three candidates; two were big companies with both offshore and onshore offerings, but the Sun-Times ultimately went with the third candidate, a startup suggested by Wright who noticed that major brands she’d previously consulted were successfully partnering with a lot of startups.

Called Millennial Services, the winning company is an end-to-end domestic customer care and contact center solution whose agents work from home — a boon during COVID-19. It also means the company can hire broadly and that agents can hop on and off as needed, depending on demand. Based in Michigan City, Ind., Millennial Services is owned by Logan R. Rush, a man in his twenties who’d previously lived in Chicago.

“We interviewed this young man, and he had experience and he had a good business model, but you know, that’s a lot to put your call center in the hands of a person that’s young and doesn’t have any newspaper experience at all,” Reidy said. “We were definitely going against the grain. It was a leap of faith.”

Wright agreed, saying, “There was no one that believed that we could do this Stateside. No one. … I talked to a place in Texas [that said], ‘Yeah, we can do it but it’ll cost you double.’”

Ultimately, though, the Times took a chance that paid off. Staff at the paper trained the Millennial Services team, which successfully integrated its system into the Sun-Times system. After becoming experts in handling customer issues and billing, over time, the Sun-Times gave Millennial Services more customer-facing responsibilities.

“As time passed, subscribers of the Sun-Times were ecstatic. We would get calls, ‘Oh my gosh! What did you do?’ We couldn’t have been happier, nor could our readers,” Reidy said. “[Millennial Service] are so good and flexible at adapting to new changes or any issue that they have. It’s been an amazingly positive experience for us.”

Cut down on call-center costs

In addition to embracing forward-thinking approaches to technology and data and analytics, Wright added that Millennial Services has an innovative cost structure that helps the Sun-Times keep costs down. Specifically, the company can ramp up or ramp down the number of customer service representatives on call, which means it can offer the Sun-Times variable pricing — a cost-saving measure.

A major metric for call centers is the “abandonment rate,” that is, people who hang up before they are able to reach an agent. The Sun-Times’ offshore call center had a rate of 0.1%; this meant there were too many agents available at any given time, which translates to higher costs, according to Reidy, who said the abandonment rate “sweet spot” is 3 to 5%, which is where Millennial Services lands each week.

“The more efficient they became, the less our costs had to be, and so it was a win-win across all boards.” Wright explained. “We didn’t have this archaic model of pricing.”

After bringing on Millennial Services, the Sun-Times had a 97% decrease in refunds, a retention level that she said demonstrates the call center’s excellence.

Sheila’s leadership and experience gave Wright the confidence to take the risk to hire a startup, the CEO said, adding that it’s important to get the right team in place, especially the right executive who has both historical knowledge and a willingness to “not pivot, but swivel to the future.”

“I knew with her veteran experience, she could build upon what [Millennial Services’ Logan R. Rush] didn’t know. What I needed him to do was bring his technology, his team and his brain. And no offense, I was going to allow Sheila to do the rest,” Wright said. “You have to get super creative in finding people who have the hunger to figure it out, then putting the right people around them to help guide them to figure that out.”

Essential to this success was Wright and Reidy’s readiness to merge old with new. In other words, they experimented as efficiently as possible and weren’t afraid of challenging the status quo, which Reidy called a “death sentence.”

“We were forced to embrace it. Just leaned into that. There are some areas that are still very legacy that are more difficult to turn around, and so we exercise patience there. But in other areas where we can make quicker, faster decisions, we do that. I mean, we tried everything,” Wright added. “Everyone was sort of rowing in the direction of understanding: We’ve got to get more out of this boat. How do we do it?”

Take a risk

At the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette, a daily newspaper serving the state of Arkansas, publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr. was the person responsible for getting everyone on his team rowing in the same direction. As mentioned in chapter 3, Hussman Jr. was behind the Democrat-Gazette’s highly successful iPad program, which involved replacing most of its home delivery of print newspapers with e-newspapers uploaded onto iPads. Let’s take a deeper look at the decision-making process behind this innovative project.

Hussman Jr. came up with the idea in January 2017, and called circulation director Larry Graham into his office to propose a test. They chose Blackville, Ark., an isolated community 200 miles away from the paper’s headquarters in Little Rock, to survey the 200 Democrat-Gazette subscribers there. So, Graham and several other colleagues bought four or five devices, and asked the subscribers if they’d be willing to read the newspaper on an iPad if home delivery stopped.

“We got absolutely shut down: ‘No, I wouldn’t do that. Why would I want to read you on the iPad? I don’t want to do that. I want to keep getting my paper,’” he said. “I mean, we really got negative results out of that.”

Testing stopped, but nine to 10 months later, Hussman Jr. brought up the iPad idea again, telling Graham at the time, “I keep thinking about this iPad deal. Maybe we should go up there and stop delivering and see how many people actually would take [the iPad].”

The circulation director balked at the suggestion because the surveys overwhelmingly told him that subscribers weren’t receptive. “When he called me back in for that second meeting, I came back to my folks and said, ‘Walter cannot get this iPad thing [out of his mind]. He can’t stop thinking about it.’ I did not think it would work,” he said. “But it was totally different when it actually happened.”

The Democrat-Gazette went ahead and stopped delivery to Blackville in January 2018 — a move that was very well-received, according to Graham. He was surprised because the 2017 survey results didn’t indicate that Blackville subscribers would embrace the iPad if they had no other alternative. Once the Democrat-Gazette team showed its app and the iPad to subscribers, however, they were impressed. Ultimately, the Blackville test was so successful that the Democrat-Gazette rolled out its iPad program across Arkansas, and was able to convert 75 to 90% of its print subscribers to the e-newspaper.

“It does not read like a website. It’s the actual replica of our newspaper,” Graham explained. “That’s a bridge between our aging subscribers and our younger subscribers who want to read us on their phone or some other way. Our aging long-term subscribers want a newspaper format; they want it to look like a newspaper, feel like a newspaper, read like a newspaper. On our app, that’s what it does.”[separator]

No longer exclusively the realm of retailers, customer service should become a bigger focus for media outlets, especially now that consumer revenue models like subscription and membership are providing newsrooms with more pathways to financial sustainability beyond advertising.

Much like how effective audience engagement draws news consumers into an outlet’s reporting and editorial processes, good customer service helps build trust between publisher and subscriber or donor.

At the end of the day, whether you’re talking editorial or biz, it all comes down to relationships. Providing quality customer service is one way of building trust and getting to know — not to mention better serve — your readers, listeners and viewers.

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